FOXBOROUGH - After roughly a dozen on-field organized team activity and minicamp practices, Thursday was supposed to be the last session before the pseudo-summer break for Patriots players.
Helmets in hand, some of them with taped ankles or wrists, they walked up the stairs to the grass fields behind Gillette Stadium just after noon.
Once they got there, Bill Belichick had a welcome surprise: They would be starting their time off early. No practice, just a team meeting, and they were free to go.
“It was a shocker,’’ said Deion Branch. “But Coach keeps us on our toes.’’
Branch said the Patriots had a great offseason, though he followed up by saying there’s a lot of work still to be done.
Belichick must have agreed with Branch’s assessment; this is believed to be the first time in his tenure with New England that he has canceled a minicamp practice.
In his press conference, Belichick said he felt the team had gotten a lot done, and on Wednesday, Tom Brady had said Belichick really challenged players mentally and the team had responded well.
Now there is a break of nearly six weeks until players have to report for training camp (the Patriots have not announced the schedule, but they will likely report July 25), and while there won’t be much opportunity for football-related work, they have plenty of expectations on how to spend this time.
First and foremost: maintain or improve their conditioning.
“I think overall these guys are in pretty good shape, but I don’t think they’re in training camp shape, real football shape,’’ Belichick said. “That’ll come again over the next few weeks, getting back to their offseason training, lifting and conditioning and doing things to really get them prepared for the bulk of the football season from the conditioning standpoint.
“We’ve done a lot of technique things, working on their skills and doing a lot of teamwork so that they can either actually execute or visualize the plays that happen relative to having somebody on the other side of the ball. That’s something you can’t simulate in your own personal workouts. You need a team setting to do that. We’ve tried to emphasize that.
“Between now and the start of training camp, physical conditioning, cleaning up any little nagging injuries, making sure they do a good job with all aspects of the training - nutrition, hydration, rest, speed, strength, power, explosive movements, those kinds of things - that’s all part of it.’’
As if to underscore Belichick’s point, Branch and offensive lineman Kyle Hix were on the game field inside Gillette after the team meeting doing sprint work with strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash.
Belichick acknowledged that he has spoken with Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt about New England and New Orleans holding joint practices in the days before their Aug. 9 preseason matchup.
“I’ll probably follow back up and see how that works out,’’ said Belichick.
Belichick pointed out that the Saints’ preseason schedule may be a roadblock; they play in the Hall of Fame Game Aug. 5.
Asked if he has spoken with any of his other preseason opponents - the Eagles, Buccaneers, and Giants - about joint practices, Belichick said that “could be a possibility.’’
Belichick has strong ties to new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano, and also has voiced his respect for frequent draft-weekend trade partner Andy Reid of the Eagles in the past.
In 2010, New England hosted New Orleans for two days of joint practices and did the same before the preseason game in Atlanta.
This offseason meant different things for second- and third-year players. For both it is a bit of a foreign experience.
Guys who were rookies last year had no offseason work at all thanks to the lockout.
For players heading into their third season, like Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez, it’s their first true offseason. Right after being drafted, they were just trying to digest everything that was coming at them, and they didn’t get that important time of growth last spring.
McCourty, who along with twin brother Jason McCourty of the Titans will address the current crop of NFL rookies at the rookie symposium later this month, tried to get the most out of the experience.
“A lot of things I did this offseason, it was the first time doing it, coming back when I came back [in mid-April],’’ he said. “I keep telling myself, just take advantage of that opportunity to be here with your teammates, to have your coaches be able to coach you up to get better, so I’m just trying to take advantage of that.’’
Though it is just his third season, McCourty is one of the most tenured members of the secondary.
Injured tight end Jake Ballard, claimed off waivers earlier in the week from the Giants, reported to Gillette Stadium Wednesday. “We’ll move along on his rehab and see how it goes,’’ said Belichick. “He seems to be doing relatively well for where he was at.’’ Ballard had microfracture and ACL surgeries . . . Asked about receiving the AFC championship rings Wednesday, Belichick said it was bittersweet and added that it’s time to move on . . . Players were not allowed to take their playbooks with them during the break.